February 27, 2010

The Magic Boxes

It is the shape, not the circuits, that makes a computer classic.

I reminisced with a fellow passenger last night on the flight back from Las Vegas, as we sat with our sleek, superslimm, forever tasking notebooks. We tried to recall (memory not what it used to be) the early eighties, pre mouse, pre “PC in every pot”, era.  A ‘286’ was our machine, “DOS” nighttime reading, floppies came in size 5 ¼, word-processing an adventure in combination keystrokes, and the C drive was king. Generating wiring diagrams, schematics and circuit board layouts took hours (pre mouse, how did we ever manage), and “Al Gore’s Internet” was an infant. E-mail and going on-line a marvel. The rest is an amazing history.

So much for the circuits.

“No one will ever collect computers,” a Silicon Valley computer entrepreneur once declared to me. “Computers are just boxes.”  The entrepreneur, who collected automobiles, was wrong. His company went bankrupt, and the computer he produced is now a collectible.

Computers are just boxes, but the shape of the box, like the shape of a car, is important in selling the machines. When computer hackers talk of the “architecture” of a computer, they are referring to the organization of its circuits, not the box. To the rest of us, the look is important.

The traditional designer’s ambition of expressing function in aesthetic form giving a car an aerodynamic shape, for instance-is particularly challenging for computer designers. By their nature, these machines are charged with connotation of power and control, but their functions are silent, subtle, and abstract. The expressive side of the design saying what the machine is all about-is the designer’s hardest task.
Unlike the automobile industry, where “styling” did not appear until the public had bought fifteen million simple black Model-T’s, the murderously competitive computer business achieved a level of design in its infancy remarkable for an industry. These have become the classics of today’s collectors.

The Grid Compass and the Mindset have been for many years in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

However, who remembers these? –

The Digital Equipment Rainbow monitor, little more than a stripped-down picture tube, it sat on the desk with the tenuous dramatic balance of a Brancusi head. Digital Equipment used the fact that the computer won international design awards in their advertising.

Memotech’s cool brushed-metal black box. Memotech contrasted itself to plastic computers by touting its “extruded aluminum casing,” for protecting the chips, acting as “a heat sink,” and serving a “a Faraday cage, completely sealing off radio-frequency interference that could impair picture quality.”

Kaypro acted as if it did not care about design, but the crude metal box that housed its bargain-basement computer made it look as basic and no-nonsense as a WWII Jeep did. Referred to by engineers as “Darth Vader’s lunch box”.

Radio Shack’s TRS-80, the silver plastic housing led computer buffs nickname them “Trash-80’s.”

And finally, a German company called Frogdesign opened an office in Campbell, California, near the Apple Headquarters, in Cuptertino. Soon it had produced the Apple IIc, a pure white machine with a ridged, squarish box, combining keyboard and system unit, “unsculptured keys”, and a futuristic looking monitor. Ah, those Germans and their machines.

Designers approached the first personal computers with the science fiction models of Buck Rogers and 2001 fixed firmly in their minds. Those images-visions of what a computer would look like if it existed-inspired the shape the machine took when it finally became a reality, and what an incredible journey it was, is, and will be.

Composed on an antique Mac II (I know, it does not compete with Charles’ ancient Osborne I).

February 24, 2010

Aimez-vous Ditto?

…the pleasure of living with a feline.

All of the reasons, usually given, for loving cats are correct, but I omit the real reason why I love cats. Envy.

I envy their ability to see in the dark things we barely see in the light; their ability to jump five to ten times their lengths, with ease and grace; their sense of independence; their ability to hunt and kill without mercy or repentance; their effortless beauty.

I envy their curiosity; their soft, warm bodies, which does not change much with age; their ability to give love unconditionally; their suppleness. How many people can lick their chest, stomach, bottoms of their feet, rump? I envy their skill at bamboozling even the hardest heart into accepting them, and secretly wish I could come back as a cat. Personally, I would love to sleep anywhere, anytime, and for sixteen-hour stretches, die and return eight more times.

Until then, a cat owns me. She accepts me as I am. She respects my personal space, time, idiosyncrasies’ and expects the same courtesy in return.

Ditto, is her name, and she adopted me at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Six weeks old, and recently orphaned (mother got “carried-away” by a coyote). She looked me over and decided that I would “do”. A fierce huntress, with a stubborn independent streak (don’t fence her in), wild, capricious, and provocative. She wanders freely through the backyard her green eyes alert and sleek body primed for assault or escape. However affectionate, she is fundamentally feral.

This year we are celebrating eight years of peaceful co-existence. Not many human relationships last that long today. Just another reason to be envious.

February 12, 2010

Affection and rhubarb pie.

I write this blog not only to celebrate Valentines’ Day, but also to proclaim publicly my great admiration of an old friend.

If you are inclined to wince at my mention of matters personal, permit me to remind you that you are not a captive audience.

Accordingly, I will reminisce. This is the first time I have the opportunity to write about her without the risk that she will immediately contradict me, change the subject of my discourse in midsentence, observe that the table on which I am painting is an irreplaceable antique, hide the scotch, or turn off the light.

I am talking about Julia. Julia died last year.

Julia was the mother of Angela, Andrew, and Charles and surrogate mom to Mona and me (for over fifty years). She was a pillar of reliability not only to her family but also to her community. Her authority was absolute, except when her sense of humor was provoked which was easily touched off and we managed to navigate around her sense of order and rectitude by simply making her laugh.

I know of only one occasion when this failed. Her late husband, the formidable Christopher Charles, was a taciturn man, particularly respecting his business affairs, concerning which his family notoriously knew nothing. On one occasion, many years ago, Julia came home bursting with entrepreneurial pride. She launched at lunchtime into an extended account of her prowess in her capacity as chairman of the local ladies society in shepherding the society away from, let us call it the Hotel X, where for years it had had its headquarters at considerable profit to the Hotel X, on over to, let us call it the Hotel Y. Julia overflowed with joy at how she finally had won the fight, and had just that morning signed a ten-year lease on behalf of the ladies club. Christopher Charles had been eating wordlessly throughout the extended account. At this point, he spoke up. “You know something, dearest? You own the Hotel X.”

It has been reported, that she did not speak to him for a months, and did so then only after forcing him to sell the hotel, preferably at a loss.

Julia was a welfare institution of her own. Providing to her family and those she chose as her friends, an inexhaustible supply of affection, guidance, encouragement, loyalty, shelter, and rhubarb pie. I know that those who knew her personally will not take offense at my proposing a toast to her, gratefully and affectionately, on this Valentine’s Day weekend.

February 01, 2010

Don’t Charles…

…when friends are arriving
By airplane, motor, and train
Retire to bed
With an aching head
And that famous redundant “migraine”.

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